Some background, first. I started using Word 6 on Windows 3.11 / 95, many years ago, having been using LaTeX since around 1992. LaTeX just worked, but could be a tad fiddly, and needed considerable geek chops.

Word 6 was nice, simple, and worked well for smaller documents. I eventually upgraded to Office 97, which I still use. The user interface of Word 97 doesn’t get in the way too much, once you’ve terminated Clippy and turned off all the IntelliSense crap.

Since I’m increasingly switching over to Free/Open Source solutions on all systems I use, I’ve been using OpenOffice.org 1, and now, 2. OOo is wonderful; I haven’t found anything I can’t do with it, although I’m not a demanding writer/spreadsheet guy, and for databases, I’d use MySQL or PostgreSQL. Its UI is fine, once you’ve got used to it. I’d reckon I’m far more productive in OOo than Word 97 now.

At the moment, I’m editing a document a colleague wrote in Word 2003, and am finding it a painful, disturbing experience. What have Microsoft done to Word?

  • You’re editing the middle of a cell in a table, and want to select from here to the end of the cell. You press shift-end, and the whole cell is selected. This contravenes the law of least astonishment, and goes against common user interface principles ingrained in anyone who’s been using computers for any significant time.
  • I go to Options to see if there’s some IntelliSense crap relating to this that I haven’t turned off, and see under the Edit Tab ‘Smart cut and paste’. Aha! Smart! They even label the option with a great big fat neon light saying “Looky here! We think we’re being clever here!”. But, wait – I have a different definition of “Smart”, so I’ll click the question mark at the top of the dialog then click “Smart cut and paste”, and it’ll tell me what the option really does. Except that clicking the question mark fires up a help browser, and forces me to have to navigate to the option I want. It’s as if they’re making me go out of my way to get help on their dumb-ass app, perhaps in the hope that if I probe too deeply, I’ll get worn down, and shrug, and accept The One True Idiot Microsoft Way. No, asshats, I’ll just switch back to OOo. Anyway, unchecking “Smart cut and paste” doesn’t turn off the cretinous behaviour of shift-end in tables.
  • For some strange reason, although my headings are styled as Heading 1, Heading 2, etc., some of the Heading 2’s have full stops after their section numbers, and in some cases, the section numbering is out of sync – Heading 1 has section number 2.1, and a subHeading 2 has section number 1.4. Are there two Heading 2 styles lurking in here? How would I know? Why?
  • I have the Styles and Formatting pane open, since the drop-down to select styles creates a disturbing screen-wide list of all available styles, most of which I’ve never used, and are butt-ugly. I place the caret on one of my headings, and select Heading 1 from the Styles and Formatting pane, and the Heading 1 under my mouse swaps position with Heading 2 as it jostles into first place in the Frequently-Used-Styles top half. Hell, this is turning into a video game….
  • The list goes on – looking at the sheer number of options and things that can be changed is enough to convince me that we have a severe case of feeping creaturism.

The user is supposed to be in control of the technology, not be a slave to its crazy reinterpretations of standard user interface behaviour and flagrant upgrades-as-prime-motive-for-continued-existence.

Each oddity of behaviour causes the writer to pause, breaks the writer’s flow.

The changes MS have made to Word over the years have significantly increased its feature set, to the point now where it’s so unwieldy that they’ve had to completely overhaul the UI. Each time a writer experiences one of these changes in UI, it causes another break in flow, loss of focus, requires a context switch while the writer works out how the new feature works / how to turn it off and get back to a more sensible UI. How will experienced Word 2003 users react when they have to switch to the new UI?

A massive shift for them…. and I’m reminded that a great many users are afraid of computers. I’m a hacker [see my definitions], so it doesn’t bother me that much – it certainly restricts my flow. However, I’ve seen people flinch visibly when it doesn’t do what they expect.

So, if you’re going to have to go up a steep learning curve, make it the one that gets you productive with OpenOffice.org.

Why? Because OOo is likely to change less than Word/Office. It’ll improve in terms of reliability as the developers fix bugs, although since there are fewer developers, and since they’re not driven by a corporation whose existence is attuned to the product’s frequent feature addition cycle – we’ll see fewer features added that people don’t want/need.

It’ll change at a slower rate. “Progress should not speed a Man faster than his soul.” – Chinese proverb, I believe. Important to remember, since The Singularity is Near.

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